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Lust, Caution

October 31st, 2007 (10:45 pm)

© 2007 D. Gordon

Lust, Caution is taking a beating in the critical arena.
  • Manohla Dargis, New York Times: "...a sleepy, musty period drama about wartime maneuvers and bedroom calisthenics, and the misguided use of a solid director.... there's little left to the imagination in Lust, Caution, other than the inspiration for Mr. Lee's newfound flirtation with kink."
  • Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune: "Outside the bedroom, the wartime swirl of intrigue never develops beyond postcard imagery"
  • Robert Wilonsky, Village Voice: "Ang Lee's sexed-up NC-17 thriller is neither sexy nor thrilling... it's amazing how something so cold is expected to generate so much heat."

By focusing on the sex scenes, however, most of these reviews miss the point. Yes, the movie is rated NC-17 for rather explicit sex scenes. But the sex is a symptom, not its focus.

Lust, Caution takes place in the depths of World War II China. A college acting troupe, caught up in patriotic fervor, decides to move its message from the stage into the real world by assassinating an official in the collaborationist government. The way to do this: have one of their younger members, Wang Chia-Chih, lure that official, Mr. Yee, with the promise of an affair. Wang Chia-Chih, alone and abandoned in wartime Hong Kong (her mother is dead; her father has taken her brother to England, promising to "send for her"), has found a natural affinity for acting; deceiving Mr. Yee is the role of a lifetime, not least because the plot puts their lives at stake.

But youthful idealism isn't reality, and their scheme becomes much more complicated. Even with a pause in their plans, the lines between acting and the real world blur and Wang Chia-Chih has to figure out who she is in all this - and there's no reneging, no running away.

Eileen Chang's original short story is spare and just long enough to get to the point; in fact, "the point" is presented as almost a passing thought, making it even more stark. Ang Lee dresses this framework in substantially more detail, adding richness to that stark point. Mr. Yee, in particular, becomes much more nuanced; he's changed from a short, squat middle-aged man who pauses in the course of his day into Tony Leung, with a much more textured personality. The sex scenes reflect the relationship between Wang Chia-Chih and Mr. Yee, and how they are drawn into a situation, an interaction, neither of them expected. Maybe sex between these enemies isn't supposed to "generate heat."

Critics who claim that the first part moves too slowly, that nothing really happens, aren't really watching. The many games of mah-jongg are important for the little details of information revealed in those scenes. We learn that the wives around the table, married to government officials, are of a certain social status that Mak Tai-Tai (Wang Chia-Chih's role) doesn't quite fit into as the wife of a businessman. They discuss lunch meetings, black market goods, and the rarity of pink and yellow diamonds (which become significant later); Mak Tai-Tai sports a jade ring. Mrs. Yee is the de facto leader of this group, so these sessions are held at her house. As a result, Mr. Yee comes and goes through their games. He keeps himself separate, refusing to play mah-jongg several times until doing so brings him closer to Mak Tai-Tai; the timing of this event is also a key to what's going on behind the scenes. The furtive looks between Mak Tai-Tai and Mr. Yee over one game, which no one else notices, serve to first introduce us to their relationship. Quite a bit of setup and character development goes on over the tiles, taking place at the speed of life.

It's true that there are elements in the story that won't be clear to some Western audiences; just some of the mah-jongg strategy and winning hands make that clear. I've also read that "lust" in Mandarin is very close to the word "lost", and can be interpreted several different ways in the context of the story. That doesn't come across in English, and a layer of complexity slips away.

But rather than fault Ang Lee for not making his story more accessible, it should be recognized that the story is targeted to an audience familiar with its cultural references. The source material is by a well-known and somewhat controversial Chinese literary figure, and it unfold in a slow, subtle manner – which I'm told is a very Chinese way of storytelling. There are universalities that can be picked up: about the effects of environment and upbringing, about the nature of love, about what in relationships is and isn't an act, how war is hell with a twist. But these universalities are filtered through a Chinese lens. As such, I think it's up to the Westerners to go the extra mile and fill in blanks they find. The shoe on the other foot, to a certain degree.

Lust, Caution is a rich story and a fitting next step in Ang Lee's career. For anyone willing to do a little legwork, there's a thought-provoking narrative layered in the complexities of life, and attraction, and war. I highly recommend it.